If there’s one cuisine in the world that most people haven’t tried, it’s probably Ethiopian. Although the western Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh hasn’t experienced a surge of Spanish speaking immigrants to the area like so many other East Coast cities have, it does have a wide array of exotic restaurants. Abay is one of them.
In Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) Abay is the name for the Blue Nile. The longest river in the world, the Nile is fed by two main rivers, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, so named because of the colors of their waters. The Blue Nile begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
I first ate at this restaurant years ago and now it is a yearly tradition to dine here. The restaurant is not at all fancy; it’s the kind of place to go to with close family and friends, especially those who are open to new food and new ways of eating. The decor is simple but resonant of the country’s cuisine it is serving. Paintings and other art work of Ethiopian people and scenes of village life line the walls along with a section of more traditional style seating (i.e. not western style tables and chairs). Upon stepping into the restaurant’s foyer there is a world map pointing out where Ethiopia is. Many people would most likely be unable to locate on their own.
Reservations are only accepted for groups of eight or more, but we’ve never had a problem getting seated right away. On the weekends they are open for lunch from 11:00 AM to 3 :00 PM, closing for two hours until dinner which starts at 5:00 PM.
We started off by ordering a cup of the pumpkin soup, a creamy blend of pumpkin, herbs, and Ethiopian spices. At only $4, it is a great starter without filling you up too much before your main entree arrives. Although I am usually apprehensive of cream based soups due to their richness, I’ve ordered the pumpkin soup here before and never had any problems. You can really taste the delicate balancing of the herbs and spices. Other starters include Ethiopian versions of turnovers and different salads.
In the Ethiopian culture, there is a strong focus on community. The communal spirit shows through in the manner in which Ethiopian people traditionally eat, as meals are served on platters which are meant to be shared. Instead of actual utensils, Ethiopians use injera as a substitution for a fork or spoon. Injera is a yeast-risen flat bread, with a unique, slightly spongy texture:
Although Abay features an extensive selection of a la carte menu options, most diners opt for the combination sampler which is an assortment of any four meat and vegetarian entrees. Prices are determined on the number of people partaking. Prices start at $14.50 for one person to $56 for four people. (Abay does offer a complete vegetarian combination sampler and prices are a bit cheaper).
There are a total of five beef, four chicken, and eleven vegetarian options to choose from, ranging from mild to spicy. For our four we selected the doro wat (drumsticks marinated with fresh lemon and simmered in berbere and a combination of seasonings), alitcha wat (lean, chopped beef slowly simmered in a mild and flavorful herb sauce), fosolia (string beans lightly spiced and sauteed with carrots and potatoes), and butecha (ground chickpeas mixed with olive oil, diced onions, and green peppers).
This was the first time we had ordered the doro wat (it was a spicy selection) and while I liked the taste, it was a bit messy eating it (which is to be expected when you only have a piece of bread to serve as the de facto utensil). The alitcha wat is a tried and true favorite, something we always order. This was the first time we had the fosolia and while it was good, the green beans tasted a little too “canned” for my taste. It could have been due to the drowning they received from the olive oil. The butecha is great because it’s one of the few items on the menu that is served cold, providing a great contrast to the hotter and spicier dishes.
As always, it was a great meal at Abay and we are already looking forward to our visit again next year.